Live oak stumps line the foreshore of many of North Carolina’s beaches and are the remenants of maritime forests that once ran along the soundside of the island before the island migrated overtop of them. The wave action of the ocean exposes the ancient stands of forests.
THE WHOLE PLACE FEELS TROPICAL. Standing in the shade of the canopy, yet filling my lungs with the tang of salt that perpetually hangs in the air here, I consider this for a moment. It’s got to be the woody vines, something that the U.S. tends to be starkly lacking in. Lianas the size of forearms cascade from canopy to forest floor weaving together a phantasmagoric landscape — more Panama than North Carolina. A quick mental inventory of plants reassures me of my location, however: gnarled and twisted live oaks, eastern red cedars, yaupon holly and the lianas themselves — the native muscadine grape, Vitis rotundifolia.
I’m still in the Carolinas.
I’m on Ocracoke Island in a maritime forest that is dripping with as much history as it is with salt spray. Western civilization crashed into these shores some 450 years ago as the barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks of North Carolina bore the weight of both Spanish incursions and England’s first attempts at colonization in the New World. This particular patch of forest is best known for a captain by the name of Edward Teach —maybe you know this man by a different name.
He went by the alias of Blackbeard.
A small break in the protective wall of live oaks that buffers the maritime forest from salt spray. This break is part of the trail system that winds through Springer’s Point on Ocracoke Island.
LIFE ON A SANDBAR
Born on the sands of a landscape in constant flux, where axioms such as “change is the only constant” take on meaning more geological than philosophical in nature, the very existence of these maritime forests is a testimony to the adaptability and perseverance of life itself. These islands are not volcanic mounts or the remnants of ancient reefs. They are little more than sandbars. Dig as you may to find something solid, other than the remains of one of the more than 2,000 shipwrecks along this coast, and your labor will find purchase against nothing larger than a grain of sand.
Herein lies the problem of life on a sandbar, as so many bumper stickers proclaim: sand moves. It blows in the wind. It is removed and deposited by waves and water. It builds on these islands into towering living dunes, known as medanos, which roll across the landscape, albeit at a glacial pace, swallowing everything in their path. It can wash away with the passing of a single storm, leaving inlets complete with navigable waters where a seemingly stable patch of island stood literally the day before. And, there is the movement of the islands themselves, a phenomenon known blandly as island migration.
Imagine, if you will, a landscape in constant motion. A world caught between the powers of wind and waves, in a dance with two of the most relentless forces on Earth. But, the results are not the slow and steady weathering of mountains. This is a landscape that is being rolled over top of itself in a steady march to the west.
And then there is the salt.
Upon sacking the city of Carthage during the Third Punic War in 146 BC, the Roman general Scipio ordered his army to salt the earth as a final punishment to the city that he laid bare. Such was a practice that saturates the history of warfare. It was the ultimate insult. Salt chemically scorches the earth, ensuring that it would be some time before crops could be grown again. Without crops, cities could not feed themselves.
And a starving people are a people easily conquered.
When we speak of maritime forests, really, we speak of salt — that which puts the maritime in maritime forests. This substance, known in geek speak as sodium chloride, is the Darwinian agent at work upon these forests, the ruling body that governs all, constantly shaping and evolving its subjects to its cruel will.
Salt is the bond that connects this maritime forest with the sea as it perpetually bathes the island, day in and day out. In a land of hurricanes and nor’easters, these islands, and their associated forests, inevitably find themselves fully baptized in the ocean from time to time. But, more importantly is the aerosol form, freed from its prison of water by the rolling of waves, salt is set loose upon the winds to corrode and burn at will whatever it may fall upon.
All of this makes for a forest of impossibilities. They should not be here. They should not grow here. A small handful of salt-adapted grasses and shrubs — maybe. But, not a forest. Yet, here they are. Standing in patchwork, sprinkled across the islands behind ancient dunes, sprawling out across wider swaths of land and providing for one of the most unique types of forests in the eastern half of the United States. But, this uniqueness has a price — as uniqueness always does. Given the unstable nature of barrier islands, the hurricanes, the nor’easters, the shifting sands and the fact that the real estate is some of the most desired and expensive in the U.S., these maritime forests also stand as one of the rarest habitats in the country.
A stand of loblolly pines and live oaks that once stood at the edge of the forest 10 years ago, are now stranded in the water as the island has eroded away around them.
MORE THAN A RISING TIDE
The skeletal remains of a live oak long-since flooded out by rising waters sits silhouetted against the pastel colors at the edge of twilight in the Currituck Sound.
Today, these forests face yet another challenge. As if the odds of survival were not already stacked against them, industrial civilization has tossed another variable into the equation: sea level rise born of climate change. And, it is the question of how these now heavily fragmented forests will survive in the face of rising sea levels that has brought me to my old stomping grounds on the Outer Banks.
The problem with asking questions about maritime forests, however, as I would quickly learn, is that we actually do not know much about them to begin with. According to the National Biological Service, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior, despite being one of the rarest forests in the country, they are also one of the least studied biological communities. And thus, much like the forests themselves, published studies pertaining specifically to maritime forests are also rare.
So, when it comes to the question of the impact of sea level rise on maritime forests, I am met with the same response from university researchers to reserve managers: “we just don’t know.”
This is concerning. In North Carolina, we do not even know how much of these forests remain intact.
Back in 1995, it was determined that only 2,500 hectares of undeveloped maritime forest remained — nearly 60 percent of which was not protected and open for development. At the time, the National Biological Service predicted that the remaining unprotected stands of maritime forest would most likely become fully developed by the year 2000. That year has come and gone. And, while North Carolina’s Wildlife Resource Commission has long since declared that maritime forests are one of the most endangered habitat types in the state, and that land acquisition efforts should be a top priority, our general ignorance of these forests marches on.
I chatted with Misty Buchanan from the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program about this fact. Given the rarity of these forests, I wanted to know why we didn’t know more about them.
“Maritime forests don’t tend to be a welcoming environment,” she said. “Ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, dense vegetation, tangles of vines, this is a hard environment to study.”
This old live oak is growing along the bank of what was once the Old Currituck Inlet, which was the original dividing line between North Carolina and Virginia. The low-lying area that is characterized by dense wax myrtle is all that remains of what was once the primary means of shipping across northern North Carolina.
THE EYE OF THE STORM
Making my way out of the forest and onto the estuarine beach that fringes Springer’s Point on Ocracoke Island, I couldn’t help but notice the odd shape to the trees. It’s like a giant wall of impenetrable live oak. Only, this palisade was a giant wedge. Those individuals growing closest to the water’s edge are also the shortest, with branches just a couple of feet above the sand. Moving inward, the wedge grows in height as the trees become taller thanks to the protection from salt spray offered by the shorter stunted trees along the outer edge. Behind this wall, the entire diversity of the maritime forest is dependent upon this impenetrable wedge of live oak leaves for its existence.
Debris sits as high as 3 and 4 feet up into the lower branches of trees in the forest.
Debris hung from the branches 3 or 4 feet above the ground. Most of this was dried eel grass, a type of submergent vegetation that makes up the estuarine grass beds below the water’s surface. This debris is the consequence of Hurricane Matthew, that tropical headlinegenerator that churned up the coastline back in October 2016. The presence of this eel grass means that the Pamlico Sound swept through parts of this forest.
Continuing along the beach, I rounded the point to encounter a forest of death. Live oaks and red cedars stood in various stages of demise and a wrack line of debris could be found pushed deep into the forest. On the edge, nothing lived. The herbaceous vegetation and grasses were matted flat in the direction that the water came pouring in. Live oaks, which hold thick waxy green leaves throughout the year, for which they derive their name, were bare and skeleton-like. Eastern red cedars stood dying. The wax myrtles were nothing more than twigs.
It would be easy to simply chalk all of this up to Hurricane Matthew. At face value, it very much was the result of the storm. But, what we know of rising sea levels is that small changes interact synergistically with other variables that already jeopardize life on these sandbars.
What is a few inches of sea level rise? Or a couple of feet for that matter? We may lose several feet of a beach, but that’s nothing in a place like this.
When it comes to storms, rising sea levels, astronomical high tides or just about anything else, the media tends to focus on the ocean side of things. Sure, that is where the multi-million dollar homes are. But, that is not where we see the biggest impacts of such events. Around these parts, a few inches of sea level rise equates to a significant amount of wave action against the back-island shorelines, which are not naturally fortified against such energy as the ocean-side beaches are.
The bodies of water behind the islands are a vast inland sea and the second largest estuary in the continental U.S. Though these waters are subject to the pull of the moon and subsequent ebb and flow of tides, it’s the wind that really drives the flow of water here. So, take a high tide around a place like Ocracoke Island, add a 25-mph westerly wind to the equation and the water quickly builds up to many feet above normal. Let such winds occur during a spring or king tide, and entire sections of the island goes underwater. Let such tides occur during a hurricane, and, well, you get the point.
All of this equates to extensive erosion, and swaths of maritime forests falling into the waters behind the islands — something that is happening up and down this coast. On Bald Head Island, which holds one of the most important stands of maritime forest left in the state, it is predicted that for every foot of sea level rise, they will lose a minimum of 5,000 acres of island. In others places, the Outer Banks are suffering erosion rates of as much as 23 feet a year for this reason.
All of this from just a few inches of sea level rise. But, we are not looking at a few inches of sea level rise forecasted for this coastline. We are looking at a several feet through the coming decades.
Under normal circumstances, this would not be such a problem for the maritime forests that eke out a living here. This is a landscape of constant changes. These forests, and their associated biota, have evolved to keep pace with such change. And, much like the islands themselves, which move in response to sea level rise, the forests also migrate in response to the shifting sands. Well, that is unless there are neighborhoods, coastal McMansions, roads, golf courses and gift shops hemming them in.
Raccoon wading in the shallows, making his way towards a small bay known as Old Slough.
I watch as a raccoon makes its way from the edge of the forest and down to the water. As he wades out into the shallows to dig for clams, I am reminded of how these maritime forests are so much greater than the sum of their parts. These forests play habitat and home for basically everything that lives on these barrier islands. Nearly every species of mammal, amphibian, reptile, bird and insect that makes its living on these islands does so thanks to the protection and fresh water afforded them by these forests.
The raccoon continues to make his way towards a small bay known as Old Slough, and my attention turns to the series of ripples cutting across the water. I can make out a shadow below the surface maybe 4 or 5 feet long. That primal feeling of adrenaline races through my body as I watch in awe while a tail and dorsal fin breaks the surface. It’s a shark, though what species I can only guess. A grin spreads across my face as I watch this apex predator move on in lazy fashion. To think, I am watching sharks 20 feet away from one of the rarest forests in the country. The term maritime seems so fitting at this moment. It really is a forest connected with the sea.